As a former VP of a large foundation, I had the pleasure – and sometimes the pain – of reading thousands of case statements and grant proposals over the course of nearly 15 years.
As you can imagine, the quality of proposals varied greatly. Some dazzled, while others fizzled. The vast majority fell somewhere in the middle. With so much on the line, it never ceased to amaze me how a document so important could be so casually drafted. A poorly developed case statement or proposal can be the death knell of your grant opportunity, which means your project goes unfunded and, worse yet, the people or causes you love go unserved.
The best-case statements and offers are both easy to read and easy to grasp. They clearly describe the problem, the solution, and the impact. And they plainly explain how a donor can help make a difference.
Too many grant proposals try to validate their project by sounding needlessly intellectual. They use big words, complex sentence structures, and abstract concepts to convey importance and authority. Don’t fall for this trap! Truth is, your project is more attractive if it is easily understood. That’s because our brains are programmed to avoid noise and confusion. Research shows that we gravitate toward and, somewhat disturbingly, are more likely to believe what we quickly comprehend.
Another culprit is the ever-present Curse of Knowledge, which states that the more familiar one is with a topic, the harder it is to explain it to someone with little or no knowledge of it. You may think you’ve “dumbed down” your proposal, but to the donor it probably reads like Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.
One way to reverse the Curse is to include a real or fictional example of how your project works, from start to finish. Who is the ideal beneficiary? Give her a name. How does she hear about the program? How does she enroll? What specific services does she receive, or what knowledge/skills does she gain? What happens to her when the program is over? And, most importantly, how exactly is she different as a result of her experience?
The strength of your project does not depend on the length of your description. My favorite proposals were those that succinctly summarized the most important components of the project, while leaving the rest to follow-up questions.
Remember, our brains are designed to be lazy. Our noggins avoid work like cats avoid affection. Not only does confusion make our brains cranky, so also does having to do too much at one time – like reading a 20-page proposal on the endangered habitat of the spotted sandpiper. You may have the greatest project in the history of nonprofits (spotted sandpiper not withstanding), but if it takes you 12 pages to describe it, you’re most likely going to lose your donor’s interest.
Less is more. Use action words, and avoid nominalization (Google it – it’s a thing). Write at a sixth-grade level. Never use two words when one will do. And remember:
The writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads. ~ Dr. Seuss
It’s not enough for case statements to convey information. They must “sell” an idea and persuade readers (donors) to take action. Good case statements do this by presenting the right information, in the right order, and in the right way.
The right information. Keep the donor’s attention by avoiding lengthy prose. Instead, use a variety of content to weave a compelling argument, including real-life stories, facts, statistics, and quotations.
The right order. A winning formula for structuring a case statement is problem -> solution -> opportunity. In my experience, the most compelling case statements are those that begin with a well-articulated problem that triggers a donor’s pain point. That’s because donors are more inclined to fund negatives (less of a bad thing) than positives (more of a good thing). They buy solutions, not luxuries, so frame your proposal in a compelling problem that your funder cares about.
For example, which cause is more compelling: promoting religious pluralism (more of a good thing), or combating religious extremism (less of a bad thing)? Donors who care about injustice and violence in the world are more likely to be interested in the latter, even though the two go hand in hand.
Next, position your organization as the antidote. Explain how your program solves the problem by addressing a gap, delivering a service, or serving a population. Lastly, show how donors can help provide the resources needed to administer the antidote. Importantly, this positions the donor as the Hero and your organization as the Guide – it’s not your story, it’s theirs.
The right way. Stay clear of overused sentiments (“we’re passionate about”) or generic phrases (“make a difference”) that dilute the power of persuasion. Use emotive and concrete words that add color and detail to the work your organization is doing. This not only makes your case statement more readable, but it also sets your organization apart from all the rest.
Lastly, the best proposals are believable. They convince readers that the proposed project is not only plausible – i.e., logically possible – but also probable. Increasingly, donors are viewing their philanthropy as investments that will generate social ROI. And as investment managers, they are looking to spend their resources on organizations and projects that have a high probability of netting them a solid return.
Here are a few ways in which you can bolster a donor’s confidence in your organization’s ability to get results.
Success is the love language of donors. If the project you’re pitching has a track record of achieving results, then you’ll want to talk about those outcomes. Nothing boosts confidence like past performance. Be sure to showcase the quantitative and qualitative changes that have occurred in people, systems, organizations, or communities as a result of your program.
Depending on how new or proven your project is, use the following tiered methods to demonstrate real or probable impact: “We’ve done this before, and here are the results …”
- “We haven’t done this before, but we’ve seen it done successfully by others. For example …”
- “Nobody’s tried this before, but it aligns with best practices and/or the latest research. For example …”
- “This is a completely new idea, but we have a track record as an organization of achieving results from innovative projects. For example…”
Include social proof:
When was the last time you purchased an expensive product or service without first reading a review or asking others, “Does it really work?” According to studies, 70%-80% of consumers seek the opinion of others or look at reviews before purchasing. The same is true of donors. They want to hear from third parties whether your program really works.
Consider one or all of these options to powerfully enhance credibility through social proof:
- A testimonial from someone who has directly experienced your project
- An endorsement from a respected leader in a peer organization (that’s right – a competitor!)
- A recommendation from a satisfied donor
Finally, don’t underestimate the destructive power of typos and poor grammar. It may seem like a small matter, but grammatical mistakes can undermine a donor’s confidence in an organization’s ability to deliver on its promise. If you want funding to cure leukemia, but can’t seem to spell leukemia, that’s a credibility buster.
Every mom has uttered it, and it applies to funding as well: “If you want to be trusted with the big things, you must be trustworthy in the small things.” So be sure to triple-check your writing for punctuation, grammar, and accuracy. Mistakes, no matter how small, erode confidence.
The harsh truth is that it doesn’t matter how important your cause is, nor does it matter how good your organization is at addressing it. If donors don’t understand what you do (because it’s not clear or concise), or don’t care what you do (because it’s not compelling or credible), they’re not going to fund what you do.
So, if your team’s grantwriting portfolio resembles a Clint Eastwood movie – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly – consider incorporating the Four “Cs” of great proposals that will dazzle your donors and power your projects.